With all of the comic book properties invading TV and movies over the last decade, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Comic book diehards have differing (and strong) opinions on which are the best comics of all time, what's worth reading, and what's certified garbage. The industry pumps out dozens of new issues per week, and thousands per year, making it almost impossible for new fans to know where to begin. Coming fresh from Venom or your trillionth viewing of Black Panther, you'll quickly find that when it comes to the best comics, it's important to know their origins, and what came before them, in order for things to make sense. That's where we come in.
Even without Marvel Comics and DC Comics, there's plenty of material to choose from, in both the superhero realm and beyond. That’s why we've compiled a list of the absolute best comic books from over the years, spanning every genre available. This isn’t a “Best Comics of All Time” list—it’s more of a primer course for where to start.
From classic superhero books to politically-charged thrillers and cynical, autobiographical titles, this list of the 25 comic books you need to ready before you die will start your habit off right.
The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics)
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Few comics have been as beautifully impactful as The Wicked + The Divine, winner of Best Comic at the 2014 British Comic Awards. It takes place a world where 12 deities known as the Pantheon roam, reincarnating inside the bodies of the living and giving them supernatural powers and celebrity. The caveat? They only get to live with that fame and those powers for two years, to which they die and restart the cycle once again. This drama is all seen through our teenage protagonist, Laura Wilson, who herself is a major Pantheon stan. Spanning many decades and delving into everything from ethnicity to sexuality, Wicked is one of the most whip-smart and forward-thinking comics on the horizon.
Paper Girls (Image Comics)
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
With the world of comics being very male-driven (both in readership and the biggest characters), it’s dope to see a group of (paper) girls leading the charge in this series. Taking place in a fictional Cleveland suburb, Erin’s a new delivery girl who encounters a band of time-travelers. The comic bounces between a number of eras, with the squad battling a mysterious force that has them in constant conflict. Pick this up if you’re a fan of the idea of the conundrum of altering the future by changing the past.
The Vision (Marvel Entertainment)
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The 2017 Eisner Award-winning series reimagined the tale of The Vision into a dark suburban nightmare. In this series, Vision, an android, acts upon his wish to have a family by building one. The perfect Vision household is plagued from the jump, which readers are privy to in issue 1, and over the acclaimed 12-issue series, we see Vision’s family descend into madness. For those of you daring to be “normal,” heed this as a cautionary tale.
The Punisher MAX (Marvel Entertainment)
Writer: Garth Ennis
As part of the traditional Marvel Universe, The Punisher was always severely toned down as the company attempted to market him to kids as a hip action hero with a ton of cool gadgets. But when Marvel finally brought the character into its mature MAX line with writer Garth Ennis, the spandex costume and goofy sidekicks were replaced with a devastating arsenal of weaponry and a cynical, sociopath-like attitude towards others.
In this series, a much older Frank Castle lives in a realistic world where superheroes don’t exist and the villains are drug dealers and sex traffickers. During Ennis’ 60-issue run, Punisher shot and stabbed his way through countless law-breakers. The personal ramifications of his one-man war on crime, meanwhile, left him emotionally crippled and incapable of having anything that resembled a normal life.
Ennis added supreme depth to a character who was normally nothing more than a walking, talking cliché. Though you can still label this book as part of the superhero genre, it’s more akin to a blood-soaked crime title.
I Killed Adolf Hitler (Fantagraphics Books)
Sometimes the best comics are also the most simplistic. In I Killed Adolf Hitler, Norwegian cartoonist Jason brings sci-fi and time travel to his minimalist world in one of the past decade's best indie books. It's about a hitman from the future going back in time to kill Hitler before he could ever unleash his wave of hate and violence upon the world.
Of course none of this goes according to plan, and a mishap allows Hitler to escape into our modern world. That larger plot is coupled with a poignant little love story between the hitman and his girlfriend that adds some heart and quirky humor.
Even though the dialogue and art are fairly simple, I Killed Adolf Hitler is a quirky, fresh read.
The Invisibles (DC/Vertigo)
Writer: Grant Morrison
To truly understand what Grant Morrison was trying to accomplish in The Invisibles you have to understand that he gained most of his inspiration after, per his own claims, he was abducted by aliens in Kathmandu and given narrative ideas. Seriously.
The book itself is about a single cell working for The Invisible College, a secret organization that fights against a race of alien gods who are looking to stop the metaphysical evolution of humanity by enslaving it.
Blending anarchic and existential undertones with the high concepts and ramblings associated with an acid trip, The Invisibles is one of Morrison’s least accessible reads. But once it’s fully digested, it also becomes his most fascinating. Really, what's not to love about a book that deals with subjects as familiar as alien invasions while also focusing on tantric sex and drug use?
Morrison is mostly known for his experimental superhero work on titles like Arkham Asylum and New X-Men, but this makes all of that look like Betty and Veronica in comparison. Anyone looking to dig deep into the sordid corners of the comic book world should at least dip their toes into these psychedelic waters.
Daredevil: Born Again (Marvel Entertainment)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Dave Mazzucchelli
In the early 1980s, Daredevil was on life support. Slumping sales and a general indifference towards the character almost caused Marvel to write him off completely. Enter artist Frank Miller, who was promoted to Daredevil's primary writer and turned the title into one of the decade's best superhero reads.
After his initial stint, Miller came back to the book in 1986 for a story called “Born Again” where Matt Murdock’s life is systematically destroyed by the Kingpin after he finds out that Murdock is actually Daredevil. His identity was sold-out by his one-time girlfriend, Karen Page, who, in typical Miller fashion, turned into a drug-addicted porn star. This story completely deconstructed the Daredevil character, leaving him a flimsy husk of broken bones and Catholic guilt. As the story went on, Murdock pulled himself out of his own hell and reclaimed his city.
Miller's Daredevil is a full-on Greek tragedy packed with explosions and spandex. Simply put, it's Marvel's greatest solo superhero story.
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Mark Buckingham, various
Many people were fearful that Vertigo wouldn't be able to sustain its success in the 2000s after the creative outburst of two preceding decades. Impressively, Bill Willingham’s Fables proved that when you have a publisher willing to push the envelope of what comics can be, there will always be great books ready to hit the market.
Fables presents the popular folklore that we all grew up with—like Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderlla—and brings them into our modern world, where they live in secret in a community called Fabletown in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Though some stories deal with fantastic action and adventure, Willingham also brings us behind the scenes of the politics of Fabletown by showing readers how these classic fairy tale characters deal with the frustrating nuances of organized government. Ideas like that help Fables to transcend the fantasy genre and become something much larger and more intricate in scope.
Thanks to its engrossing characters and a dense world that's full of detail and drama, Fables has moved beyond the shadows of traditional fairy tales and established its own mythology.
Y: The Last Man (DC/Vertigo)
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra, various
One of the most successful books to come out of Vertigo in its post-Sandman days was Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man. Launched in 2002, it's about a man named Yorick Brown, who is the last surviving man after a mysterious plague wipes out the world’s male population. Along with his pet monkey, Ampersand, Yorick embarks upon a journey to find out the origins of the plague and why he's still alive.
Vaughan’s hook isnt just the sprawling and unpredictable plot, but, rather, the character of Yorick himself. Because of the serialized nature of comic books, we don’t often see characters grow and mature—they’re often stuck in suspended animation. Since Y: The Last Man had a complete arc planned from the beginning, Yorick’s journey over the series’ 70 issues is completely satisfying and engaging.
Humor, heartbreak, and suspense are all present in Yorick’s attempts to find out more about this plague and be reunited with his girlfriend, Beth. And it’s because of Vaughan’s vision and meticulous planning that this title came off as one complete story, as opposed to just a series of arcs without any real direction.
Bone (Cartoon Books, Image Comics, Scholastic)
Writer/Artist: Jeff Smith
What Jeff Smith accomplished the all-ages series Bone was unprecedented. With his simplistic art style and dialogue, Smith crafted an epic, Tolkien-esque fantasy tale that covers the traditional hero’s journey in a way that would make Joseph Campbell proud.
The story begins when the Bone cousins—Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone—are thrown out of Boneville. From there they're caught up in events that lead them from their humble beginnings into a fight against the Lord of the Locusts, an overwhelming evil who's much like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.
Bone is a huge achievement for comics that further proves you don’t need sex and violence to sell books. Smith has simply crafted an effectively thought-out story that's as basic as it is rich.
The Killing Joke (DC Entertainment)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
No writer was more prolific during the ‘80s than Alan Moore. While he made a name for himself on original work like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, he also dipped his toe into the waters of DC’s established roster of superheroes, like Superman, the Green Arrow, and Vigilante. It was his work on Batman, however, that revolutionized both the character and the industry as a whole.
In The Killing Joke, Moore explores the relationship between Batman and his most famous foe, The Joker, in a way that informs nearly every interpretation of the two since then. The plot itself is fairly straightforward: The Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum and kidnapped Commissioner Gordon in order to lead Batman into a trap at an abandoned amusement park.
In the process, the Joker commits perhaps the most senseless act of violence we've ever seen in a comic: He shoots Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, a.k.a. Batgirl, through the stomach, paralyzing her from the waist down. As the story unfolds, Moore sprinkles in bits of The Joker’s origin so we begin to get an idea of how a seemingly-normal man can turn into a psychotic serial killer with no remorse.
Moore balances The Joker’s anarchic mania with Batman’s cold, logical approach to law and order. But as his crimes begin to mount, even the Dark Knight is tempted to give into his rage. This story pokes and prods at this dynamic until it is as raw and sore as an open wound. It’s equal parts Se7en and The Dark Knight, and we doubt we’ll ever see another Batman story as intense and psychological as The Killing Joke.
Writers: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Artist: Gabriel Bá
Despite the fact that Daytripper is still relatively new, it’s impossible to ignore its absolute brilliance. Every chapter in Vertigo's 10-issue series begins with the retelling of an important event from different points of the life of obituary writer Bras de Olivias Dominguez, and each one closes with his sudden death. Then the next issue begins without him even knowing he died previously, and we're shown the same routine throughout the entire series.
It’s a strange concept that writers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá keep from feeling like a cheap gimmick. The book is a meditation on life and death, and how at any moment, whether that moment is filled with joy or tragedy, it can all end in a flash. Daytripper examines all that we hold dear, looks at the inevitability of the end, and challenges us to live with purpose every day.
Moon and Bá bring such poetic beauty and sorrow to each page that it makes Daytripper one of the most successful examples of a comic book in the magic realism genre. With moments of sheer bliss and portions that will break your heart, Daytripper will challenge every emotion you ever thought a comic book could elicit.
Sin City (Dark Horse Comics)
Writer/Artist: Frank Miller
You’ve most likely already seen the movie, but trust us, there's more to Sin City than one film. In Frank Miller’s blood-soaked, neo-noir world, violence and hookers dominate a landscape that's one of the most expansive and detailed that we've ever seen in a comic. This book is a black-and-white callback to the pulps tales of the ‘40s, and Miller pulls all of it off effortlessly.
He gives us hard-boiled dialogue that just drips of testosterone, while the internal monologues of his characters showcase inner torment and misery that fits in perfectly with their crusty environment. Everyone knows about characters like Marv, Nancy, and Dwight from the movie, but they come to life in the comics just as vibrantly.
When you combine that with the minimalism and negative space in Miller's self-drawn art, Sin City leaps off the page. You won’t find its visual style in today’s comics.
All-Star Superman (DC Entertainment)
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
In an attempt to strip the Man of Steel down to his essentials and market him for a broader audience, DC hired Grant Morrison to write All-Star Superman in 2005. With a mix of poetry, nostalgia, and trademark blockbuster action, Morrison turned All-Star into a love letter to the world’s greatest superhero.
The plot follows a dying Superman who's trying to get the most out of his final days on Earth. During this 12-issue run, Supes performs amazing feats of both strength and intelligence, reveals his love for Lois Lane, cures all Earthly disease, battles his most famous villains, and saves the planet, all while reminding us why he’s one of the great characters of the past 100 years.
Morrison does all of this with the benefit of Frank Quitely's majestic art. Quitely balances iconic superhero visuals and sweeping romanticism on every page, bringing a vulnerability to the character's square-jawed mystique. His art has forever changed how we view Superman and his world.
Though the character dates back to 1938, no writer before Morrison encapsulated all of his greatness into one story. Whether he's floating through the far reaches of space, battling on Bizarro World, or visiting a children's cancer ward, Superman has never been better.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Entertainment)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Brent Anderson
There are countless X-Men titles we could have included on this list, but if you’re looking for one that encapsulates everything that this franchise is about, you can’t do any better than God Loves, Man Kills. The story centers on a reverend named William Stryker who attempts to start a holy war against the entire mutant race, no matter how much blood he gets on his hands.
This book is the perfect marriage of social commentary and superhero action, and it’s still the highpoint of Claremont’s legendary X-Men run. In 2003 the book was immortalized when the movie X2: X-Men United recreated many of its plot points. But the source material here presents a much deeper and more satisfying narrative.
It’s impossible not to feel a visceral reaction to the opening scene of the book when some of Stryker’s fanatics gun down two young mutants and hang their corpses in a school yard. Brutal imagery like that puts God Loves, Man Kills on this list over other, more famous, entries like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” Those stories are great reads for longtime comic book fans, but this is the perfect entry point for everyone else.
Swamp Thing (DC/Vertigo)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Stephen Bissette
Before Alan Moore began his run on Swamp Thing in 1983, the character was nothing more than the star of a formulaic monster book that was perpetually overlooked by DC in favor of its superhero properties. Moore put his mark on Swampy by introducing ideas that were part existential, part post-modern, and wholly unique to American mainstream comics.
Instead of going the typical monster route, Moore turned Swamp Thing into a book filled with a unique poetry and beauty that lifted a dying property into a breeding ground of innovation. That beauty was also counterbalanced by elements of horror and the supernatural, which brought a more mature flavor to the book that would eventually go on to inspire the company’s wildly successful Vertigo line.
What made Moore’s Swap Thing different, though, was the fact that he wasn’t writing like a typical comic book scribe. The overlong exposition and eye-popping action scenes were replaced with metaphors and deep introspection about the balance between man and nature. With a roster of artists up to the task of bringing Moore’s nightmarish world to life, Swamp Thing quickly became the destination for adults looking to get back into comics.
Writer/Artist: Jeff Lemire
Without any superpowers or fantasy elements, Jeff Lemire’s Essex County is an honest, real world drama about a small Canadian community and the families that inhabit it. This twisting character study is more like an indie film than a typical comic book. Lemire brings a visual flare to the whole thing that reminds us why this story could have only been told in this format.
These are stories of sibling rivalry, father issues, lost loves, and compassion as Lemire ties the seemingly separate lives of these characters together through a sprawling history of real human emotion. Whether it's a young child masquerading as a superhero, the dreams of two siblings on a pro hockey team, or the struggles of a middle-aged nurse, Essex County delivers a collection of characters so genuine that by the end you'll swear they're real.
It's as warm as it is devastating—there are plenty of moments that should move you to tears throughout. No matter how somber it becomes, Essex County never feels too sappy.
Marvels (Marvel Entertainment)
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Unlike what DC does with its Vertigo line, or, for that matter, what Image and Dark Horse comics do every month, Marvel rarely strays from the superhero genre. Which is fine, since the folks at the House of Ideas have become the masters of fictional, heightened heroism. The company's creative highpoint came in 1994 when Marvels hit the shelves.
The story provides a look at the most memorable comic book moments from Marvel’s history through the eyes of a news photographer named Phil Sheldon. To see these characters from the prospective of the average man made these heroes look more like gods than simple comic book stars. It was a novel concept, but no matter how great Kurt Busiek’s scripts were, none of that would have mattered if the artist wasn’t up to the task.
Thankfully Alex Ross absolutely owned every page. His fully-painted work added to the characters' respective mystiques. Readers witnessed Spider-Man battle the Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four take on Galactus, and the X-Men reveal themselves to the public in photo-realistic style. Imagine a marriage between Jack Kirby and Norman Rockwell. To be honest, the Marvel heroes have never looked better.
Writer: Various, including Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and Peter Milligan
After his successful appearances during Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run in the ‘80s, DC finally gave John Constantine his own comic titled Hellblazer in 1988. It's the only book on this list to feature both a rotating roster of artists and writers. But no matter who's at the helm of any given issue, Hellblazer remains one of the preeminent examples of Vertigo's dark, mature flavor.
The title's creative peak came with writers like Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, and Peter Milligan, all of whom were experts at balancing horror plots with the crude personality of Constantine himself. Hellblazer's main hook is Constantine’s common man persona mixing with the supernatural world that he finds himself constantly fighting against. Which makes for everyman hero who is incredibly flawed, and all the most interesting for it.
The series ends next month with issue #300, marking the end of Vertigo’s longest-running title. That's a lot of reading to do to catch up, so here's a short list of the trade paperbacks that best exemplify Hellblazer: "Original Sins," "The Family Man," "Dangerous Habits" (which the 2005 film Constantine loosely adapted), and "Haunted."
American Splendor (self-published, Dark Horse Comics, DC Entertainment)
Writer: Harvey Pekar
Artist: Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Kevin Brown, various
The world of underground comics is so vast that we can do another whole list on that subject alone. Anyone who's willing to dive into that small corner of the industry should definitely start with Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. This slice-of-life comic recalls Pekar’s life as a file clerk and details his personal and professional relationships, as well as his various phobias and neurosis.
The series dealt with the real world from a cynic’s point-of-view. There's no romanticism shoved down our throats; rather, we see Pekar struggle with the mundane aspects of everyday life. Small events like going to the grocery store or riding on the bus become completely engaging tales of the modern world and how this one singular man fits into its grand scheme. It’s hard not to feel a sort of kinship to Pekar and his anxieties.
Ghost World (Fantagraphics Books)
Writer/Artist: Dan Clowes
Ghost World came out at the perfect time. In June 1993, America's pop culture landscape became populated by jaded teenagers listening to punk, and suddenly mainstream, music. This book perfectly epitomized that movement.
Ghost World centers on the lives of two girls, Rebecca and Enid, who spend most of the story wandering around mocking the society around them. Their indifference for others, coupled with their wariness over the prospect of growing up, struck a chord with the cynical youth of the time. Still, Clowes hits on such elemental problems that, even though we've thankfully moved away from the whole Generation X fiasco, there's still plenty here for modern-day readers to embrace.
Clowes' book challenges commercialism and culture head-on as Enid attempts to find meaning and purpose behind everything in life. Like we've all learned over time, those answers are never as fulfilling as we want them to be, but, fortunately, Clowes delivered a story with enough humor and heart to ultimately work.
V for Vendetta (Quality Comics, DC/Vertigo)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: David Lloyd
Since its publishing debut in 1982, V for Vendetta has been adapted into a major motion picture (in 2005) and served as the symbol of the Occupy Wall Street movement. When the title first came out, there was nothing else like it. Bringing to mind a combination of Batman and 1984, V for Vendetta took an unflinching look at the dangers of an all-powerful government and the lone hero out to end its domination. At the center of it all was the faceless V, a hero known for wearing his now-iconic Guy Fawkes mask.
V is an intellectual read with dense literary allusions and social commentary. Writer Alan Moore brings sharp observations into his depiction of this domineering government, and it’s hard not to draw parallels to the work of Orwell or Huxley. And while the character of V himself does illicit a certain superhero flavor into the narrative, Moore never devolves the story into a series of action set pieces. The book is about plot and character, and it's paced more like a novel than a movie.
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Darick Robertson
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan debuted through DC’s now-defunct Helix line with a sardonic blend of political satire and science-fiction that skewered everything conventional readers held dear. Following the exploits of a misanthropic, drug-addicted, gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem, this book quickly became the manifesto to live by for the cynical comic book fan. At the time, it was rare for subjects like atheism and sex to be discussed in a series put out by a publisher like DC. Transmetropolitan, however, held nothing back.
Over the book's 60-issue lifespan, Jerusalem and his “filthy assistants” began a crusade to put an end to political corruption, social injustice, and any other ill that he deemed worthy of snuffing out. As the book went on, Jerusalem embarked on sexual exploits and overall social nastiness that would make the most adventurous reader blush. Also introduced was Ellis’ twisted future version of Earth, that's polluted with pornography, overblown consumerism, and sentient technology (e.g., household appliances that enjoy getting high).
Spider Jerusalem’s foul-mouthed, manic rants are worth the price of admission alone. Still, Ellis rose above the filthy humor to deliver satire that's now even more relevant as our real world devolves into a cornucopia of political corruption and corporate perversion. Transmetropolitan is like the pop-art lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Dillon
Vertigo has been responsible for some of the most creatively daring comics to ever hit the mainstream. None of them, however, come close to being as blasphemous and dangerous as Garth Ennis’ Preacher.
Ennis' landmark title focused on a preacher, named Jesse Custer, from the small Texas town Annville. In the opening storyline, Custer gets possessed by a creature known as Genesis, who, in the process, kills everyone in his congregation and bestows unnatural powers upon him. Genesis is the result of an affair between an angel and a demon, and when the it possesses Custer, it gives him abilities that rival God’s own.
Custer then goes out on a journey to find God, who fled heaven after the birth of Genesis. He 's joined by his ex-girlfriend, and professional assassin, Tulip O’Hare, and a drunken Irish vampire named Cassidy. Together they bring a sacrilegious glee to the entire series. Over its 66-issue run, Ennis also introduced a bizarre array of supporting characters like Arseface, Jesus DeSade, and Custer’s own psychotic grandmother, Marie L’Angelle, who's guaranteed to make you sick to your stomach.
This is a brutal comic that mixes sex, violence, and social commentary into a package that's wholly original and subversive. We honestly can’t imagine anything like this ever hitting the shelves again, considering how corporate-friendly most comic book publishers have become.
Writer/Artist: Frank Miller
Before Frank Miller unleashed The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, most of the mainstream public associated Batman with his campy 1960s TV show. Despite the fact that the comic previously returned to its darker roots in the early ‘70s, people couldn’t shake the horrific sight of Adam West doing the Batusi dance in a pair of cheap gray pajamas. Thankfully that all changed when this book debuted.
Miller made it a point to “give Batman his balls back,” as he so eloquently put it. In the book, Bruce Wayne, now in his 50s, retired from being the Batman years prior after superheroes were outlawed. After witnessing his city being torn apart by a new gang known as The Mutants, he dons the cape and cowl for one last crusade.
Miller strips away all of Batman’s technology and gadgets, leaving the Dark Knight a hulking mass of rage. He’s less of a noble hero and more of a jaded old man with a death wish and a serious mad-on for crime. Miller’s hard-boiled script and neo-noir art drains the camp and brings the darkness back into Batman’s world. Even the titanic brawls against foes like The Joker and an out-of-control, jingoistic version of Superman have a brutal finality about them that spit in the face of more light-hearted encounters from years past.
Like Miller has done all throughout his career in various other titles, he looked at the Caped Crusader through a lens informed by violence and political corruption. There's nothing friendly or comforting about this book, yet somehow it’s currently the blueprint for all new-age Batman stories.
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Comic books haven't always been embraced by the mainstream. Back in the ‘80s, they were the horrible secret youngsters kept underneath their mattresses and away from parents. Then, as companies began experimenting with different genres and making these books more mature, comics slowly started getting noticed by a larger section of society. Eventually in some circles, they were hailed as fine modern literature. And the book that led this charge was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Focusing on Morpheus, the god-like master of dreams, Sandman presented audiences with complex narratives and characters that were simultaneously divine and tangible. Along with his siblings, known as The Endless (which included Death, Delirium, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Desire), Dream (Morpheus' alias) travels to different dimensions and time periods as his struggles often find him exploring the relationship between humans and reality.
Gaiman made sure that no two tales were alike. One story could feature a run-in with Shakespeare while the next could take place in the heart of hell. And with literary allusions and rhythmic poetry filling every page, Sandman was unlike anything that the comic book medium has seen before or since. It's high-art conceived by a man who positively shattered an entire medium.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
At this point we’re sure that almost everyone has heard of Watchmen because of the 2009 movie, but there's no way that you can embark upon a respectable comic-book-buying habit without having read the original series.
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons launched this 12-issue series over at DC in 1986, no one in the mainstream had ever attempted a story so bold, complex, and brutal before. It took the very idea of superheroes and forever changed it by introducing these colorful characters to the same moral failings from which we all suffer.
That deconstruction of the genre is clearly evident than Watchmen's opening few pages, when it's discovered that a popular hero named The Comedian was recently thrown out of the window of his high-rise apartment. From there Moore brings us on a journey to the bottom of his death and fill readers in on the bizarre world these characters inhabit.
Along the way, we’re introduced to heroes like the fat, impotent Nite Owl; the sociopathic Rorschach; the god-like Dr. Manhattan; the emotionally damaged Silk Spectre; and the narcissistic Ozymandias. This mixture of has-beens, outlaws, and faux-humanitarians adds to the hopeless, chaotic existence that Moore has created. In Watchmen, the men and women in costume are just as dangerous as the enemies they fight against.
Moore's masterwork is filled with metaphors, symbolism, and literary flourishes that elevate it above a simple superhero story. Furthermore, Watchmen also acts as an engrossing mystery tale for people just looking for an entertaining yarn. In 2005, this holy grail of the medium reached the pinnacle of its praise when Time rated it as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.
Maus (Raw, Pantheon Books)
Writer/Artist: Art Spiegelman
By now most people are familiar with Art Spiegelman’s incredible Holocaust comic, Maus. But for everyone else, this isn’t just the top comic that you need to read before you die—it’s a work of art that you need to experience in your lifetime.
Based on the life of Spiegelman’s father (a Polish Jew and concentration camp survivor) during WWII, Maus gained notoriety by portraying all of the characters in the story as animals. Thus, the Jewish characters are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, British as dolphins, non-Jewish Polish as pigs, and Americans as dogs. The choice to bring animals into the story isn’t just a gimmick. Each one is carefully considered and adds depth to all of these different segments of the population.
Whether you agree with the different representations or not, Spiegelman's commitment to them can't be argued. But while these animals look like cartoons on the surface, they simply serve as a counterbalance to the tale of tragedy and survival that he has crafted.
At its heart, this is the human story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, and his first wife, Anja. It’s a heartbreaking tale that pulls no punches when discussing the death and tragedy that've hovered over his life. Not since Night and Fog has a depiction of the Holocaust given us such a raw look at one of the blackest marks in human history.
Over the years Maus has shrugged off the “comic book” label. It’s now a college course curriculum regular and frequents “Best of 20th Century Literature” lists. If you have even the slightest bit of interest in either the comic medium or world history, this is a must-read.